I try not to have a lot of regrets. Things happen. Move on, if possible. Leave it behind. A former love suggested that only I could be responsible for my happiness. She’s a former love so she must have taken her own advice.
But there are things that continue to gnaw even these many years later. This is one of them. It started out as most ideas like this – half-baked. It bounced around the back of my skull for months, maybe years. By the time I pried that slippery thing out and inflicted it upon others, I was in a position to take it from germ to proposal. Whether my immediate audience was able – or even willing – to understand is another matter. I should probably have considered that beforehand.
So what was this big idea? Simple, I thought in saner moments; bloody genius, after a few beers or tokes. Why do we accept the way that the world is structured? Why do we operate as though this is the only way that things should work? If the information is there, and we have the ability to interpret and use that information as we see fit, or as we should see fit… Then why don’t we? Why do we accept a status quo or a model or a system that really has not worked too well for us? Don’t we have a duty to try to either fix the damn thing? Or scrap it? Start over?
Now, in most things, such as engineering, airplane construction, putting a new roof on the house, I’d agree wholeheartedly to just leave things as they are. Don’t screw around. I don’t want that plane or roof falling with me or on me. But some things don’t work, fail continuously, inflict damage and/or pain, and it just doesn’t make sense that it keeps going on and on and on.
My big idea had to do with culture. News. Journalism. Writing. (Bet you thought it’d be the Indian Act or Indian Affairs, eh?) For years, I’d worked in mainstream journalism and became an advocate – if not acolyte and born-again missionary – for western journalism methods and standards. I believed in public broadcasting and public service journalism; that the bottom line should be informing people and protecting democratic rights not entertaining people for cheap eyeballs to keep stockholders happy. My problem? Even public broadcasting didn’t seem to work or to satisfy me.
My qualms took shape in South Africa in the late 90s. I’d gone to help some friends try to transform the SA Broadcasting Corp from an apartheid apologist and mouthpiece, maybe even spy, into something responsible to all of the people, and dedicated to changing the world for the better of everyone. Hah! Silly me. It’d be easier to get an intelligent policy out of Indian Affairs! (Oops, I really, really tried to leave Indian Affairs out of this post. Me bad.)
The problem with the SABC, as I learned to see it (with the help of former SA exiles who returned to fight the good fight in the corridors of the news department) was its culture. We could train people – producers, editors, reporters, camera people, etc. We could help them revise policies and procedures. We could mentor and nudge, encourage and suggest. We could even develop new shows for them. But that old culture of obedience and subservience to power and authority was engrained in the wood and paint, polluted the water and air in that monstrosity called Auckland Park.
So, after a few years, I became convinced that we were not freeing minds as much as showing experts at camouflage how to become better chameleons. It wouldn’t matter after awhile whether our trainees served the Broederbund or the ANC since they had been trained for so long to blend into the background and survive.
Now that’s a huge over-simplification and tarring with a massive brush. I came to admire and regard with awe a number of SABC journalists. Brave, sharp as hell, curious, modest, caring, worried about their country and their fellow South Africans – all at the same time. They had all of the qualities that the best journalists embrace and personify. They somehow survived the old masters and I worried how they’d deal with the newer ones.
Survival, after all, is not for the faint-hearted or the polite in places like South Africa or many other places on earth. It’s easy for foreign devils like myself to helicopter in with fancy ideas about how the world should be. But then we’d go home and those people we grew to love and respect would have to find the gumption to speak truth in the face of power.
A typical day and another workshop, this time in Durban with a group of newspaper journalists. Some write for richer, established, formerly White dailies and others for poorer, newer Black papers hoping to capture the huge readership in the townships. They did essentially the same kinds of stories and used the most of the same news sources. The only real differences were in pay scales, the names of their papers, and sometimes the owners.
Asked to identify their target audiences, the reporters gave strangely similar replies. It turned out that they were all going after the same top 10% of the population – the same target readership during apartheid. Things have changed, I asked, and shouldn’t their target audiences change as well? Certainly the Black newspapers should be explaining the world from a township perspective if they wanted to become relevant to that readership? Silly me, they replied, didn’t I know that Blacks didn’t have money? That money powered the engines? That most township Blacks couldn’t or didn’t read?
So one of the lessons I learned, and they taught me many, was that the owners of most of their newspapers weren’t that interested in serving the majority of poor, poorly educated Blacks. They talked change but didn’t walk it. Informing the Black populations about this thing called democracy, informing them of and protecting their rights, advocating on their behalf, explaining their world in terms that they could relate to and understand, got in the way of profit. That’s when it struck me that things weren’t much different with Indigenous reporting back home in Canada.
But… and here’s the regret… they taught me so much that I wanted to bring home to Canada. Their lives, their hopes, their dreams, and the way that they saw through all of the bullshit excuses, euphemisms, and justifications inspired me. Now, to put it all to good use, I thought to myself. So I came back to Canada, and got THAT job – the one I’d probably been preparing myself for during all those years kicking around places like the CBC.
So there I was; top news guy at my not-yet and still-to-be-built national TV news operation. I’d be the one picking the journalists. I’d be the one providing a vision for a world of Indigenous journalism that had yet to be articulated let alone made real with sound and pictures. Holy shit! Now what was that big idea that kept rustling around back there? I couldn’t for the life of me remember what it was no matter how hard I tried.
I’m scrambling to get material ready for our first-ever news department group hug, bitch-slap, sucker punch, condolence, forgiveness, argument, blame and name, correcting, and agenda-setting meeting. What is it I really want to do? There are lots of things that must be done. A pile of things that can be put on hold or bumped up in priority. But if I could only remember what it was that I really…. Then it hit. Got it! The memory flooded back in full 16-bit colour.
What if we changed the cultural lenses by which we – native, Indian, Métis, Inuk, Indigenous – journalists did things? Why, I asked myself, do we seem to arrange our newsroom beats or areas of responsibilities to mirror government departments or business sectors without an apparent thought? We just do it.
We create beats for reporters to cover Health (Health Canada, provincial depts of health), politics (Indian Affairs, prov depts of native affairs, Aboriginal political organizations, etc), housing (CMHC, Indian Affairs, etc), education (Indian Affairs – again!, prov depts of ed, school boards), etc, etc, ad nauseum. Just like in that Harry Potter movie, I looked into the thing I feared (or hated) the most, waved my wand, and uttered the incantation: Ridikulus!
I walked into that meeting with those journalists, editors, and producers at the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network and said: Why don’t we chuck the usual beat system and try something new? Why don’t we define how we – as Indigenous peoples coming from Indigenous cultures and communities across Canada – are going to cover stories so they make sense to our peoples, our nations, our communities? (sound of crickets… shuffling of chairs… a pen falls off the conference room table way down there…)
What are going to do instead, someone asked. Good question, I answered right back! What, I asked the wall of blank faces in front of me, if we redefine and reclassify stories along the lines of things that our folks, our main audiences, think is important to their lives?
First step is to ask ourselves this question: How do we define the most important things in our lives? (more sound of crickets… more shuffling of chairs… I swear a pen is thrown across the conference room way down there…)
Eventually, with a lot of hard work, I’ve dragged out a flip chart full of things that don’t look anything like the standard, mainstream news media’s beat system. We identify a whole bunch of things that are common and central to the lives of our Indigenous audiences. Take the following:
- Family and extended family, Mothers and children, Elders, Young adults, Men. (In other words, people.)
- Community, Society, Culture, Language, Work, Justice, Resources, Learning, Governance. (Things that serve or are there for to provide to people.)
- Foreign governments (like that damn Indian Affairs department), Outside cultures, Foreign laws, Foreign rulers. (Things that oppress people)
The list wasn’t all my invention – it came from the group as well. I thought it was brilliant. Revolutionary. Remarkably intelligent and sensible. Why don’t we – as the Indigenous news organization – tell stories from our perspectives, using our own values, and shaped to suit our audiences needs. Wow! Double holy shit!
Some of the folks looked at that list in horror, and at me with not a little fear that I’d completely lost my freaking marbles. The faces of some, okay maybe one or two, beamed as though struck by a celestial light. I wish I could have pointed to something that already existed to help everyone understand that what we were talking about was a cultural lens. We were talking about replacing the foreign lens that dominated mainstream news about Indigenous peoples, with a much more appropriate Indigenous lens.
At least, we might end up with stories that would be a lot more relevant to the peoples and nations that we had identified as our core audiences.
Now the beauty of such sessions is that they eventually end. Bitch-slaps are forgotten if not forgiven. Friends go their separate ways to never speak to each other again. Red hot overnight romances fizzle out in the old light of a new dawn. Then people settle back into familiar places and routines, like that one producer who went back to writing poetry or playing solitaire when she could’ve been producing some kick-ass stuff about Pickton.
The experiment went ahead more in fits than in starts. They tried. They really did. But they didn’t have it in them to continue down this road for long. Eventually, they just slipped back into the old and familiar same old.
What did I learn about the whole damn thing?
But what other choice do we have?